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Progress on children, but U.S. needs to act


Ten years ago on Nov. 20, 1989, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. For the first time, humanity formalized our deep commitment to cherishing children and protecting their rights.

The last 10 years have brought unprecedented progress for children everywhere. But the neglect and abuse of children is still pandemic.

First the progress: More nations in just 10 years have adopted the convention than any of the score of human rights treaties that have emerged from the United Nations. Only the United States and Somalia have not ratified the treaty. For seven years the Clinton administration has urged ratification, but there is a right-wing lobby that somehow claims the convention would weaken family life.

The Holy See, the fifth of the 100 nations to ratify the treaty, obviously does not think so.

Many nations, in response to the 41 articles contained in the convention, have altered their own laws to be in compliance -- the convention, in legal language, now constitutes customary international law.

Costa Rica and Norway now have state-appointed children’s spokespersons. In Brazil, a constitutional amendment on the rights of children was adopted in 1990.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, created to monitor the implementation of the convention, has now issued reports for some 100 countries on their observance of their new obligations.

The decisions and recommendations made by the U.N. committee that supervises compliance have created a new universal jurisprudence on the legal and moral rights of those under age 18 -- a group that constitutes almost one-half of the 6 billion persons on the planet.

In order to study and advance this new body of law, Human Rights Watch has recently formed a new unit to study the rights of children. As a member of the advisory committee to this new group, I am regularly amazed at the horror stories we hear about neglect of the rights of children around the world. But I am also astonished at the good that can be done when the need for change is documented by U.N. authorities or by nongovernmental organizations.

The recent 32-page Human Rights Watch report is available at www.hrw.org

Despite some improvements, however, the truth is that too many children are still subjected to abominable conditions. Authorities estimate that there are some 100 million minors who are street children, 40 percent of them in Latin America. Child labor is also pervasive in Asia, Latin America and Africa. A new organization, Fair Labor Association, seeks to restrain child labor by insisting that the American companies that manufacture their sneakers and clothes in Asia attach a certificate guaranteeing that the products were not made by children working under substandard conditions.

Children are also victimized by land mines, female genital mutilation and by being refugees inside or outside their own country. Children in the United States are subject to a special danger: At least 13 of them are killed each day by guns.

The list of outrages goes on. In more than 30 countries there are some 300,000 children serving as soldiers. Efforts to stay the use of child soldiers may be aided by a provision in the statute of the new International Criminal Court. That court will be able to use its jurisdiction to try the military use of children as a war crime.

The provisions of the Covenant on the Rights of the Child were refined in paragraphs 45 through 53 of the final declaration of the United Nations Conference on Human Rights attended by 162 nations, including the United States, in Vienna in June 1993. The inclusion of the rights of children in the Vienna document is another impressive reminder that the convention is binding on all nations.

In any survey of how the rights of children are observed, the United States gets top attention. Our record is troubling. Some 110 American children die needlessly each day before their first birthday. Poverty in the United States, moreover, is four times that for children in Western Europe. The United States is one of only five nations that still execute persons who were under age 18 when they committed murder.

If the United States finally ratifies the Covenant on the Rights of the Child, we would be required on a periodic basis to file a detailed report on compliance. The United States would be faulted for its broken promises.

Of equal importance is the fact that the astonishingly large and growing number of nongovernmental organizations devoted to the rights of children would make known America’s neglect of children. This exposure, however, would be salutary for the U.S. government and for the children of America.

Is it too much to say that over the last 10 years the human family has witnessed a moral revolution in its global devotion to children? The world’s lawmakers and its human rights activists have found a consensus and a coalition that, as UNICEF puts it, provides for a “first call” for children.

There are still 35,000 children who die needlessly every day. There are at least 130 million children of school age who have no school to go to -- 21 percent of all the world’s children of school age.

But the world has changed. Ten years ago all but two nations pledged to establish a legal framework binding all nations to extend equality and fairness to children. The law is clear. What we need now is love -- and, in America, action. n

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2000